Moon Honduras & the Bay Islands (Moon Handbooks) - Amy E. Robertson (2012)
Discover Honduras & the Bay Islands
Explore Honduras & the Bay Islands
THE BEST OF HONDURAS AND THE BAY ISLANDS
Honduras is a place best taken at a leisurely pace, to really enjoy those soporific tropical vibes. With 10 days, it’s easily possible to have a vacation combining several different activities and parts of the country, at a relatively relaxed pace. Buy a round-trip airplane ticket to San Pedro Sula, rather than Tegucigalpa, for easier access to Honduras’s most popular tourist destinations.
After flying in to San Pedro Sula airport, take a taxi to the first-class bus station for a three-hour drive to Copán Ruinas, near the Guatemalan border. Once there, get a room at the Hacienda San Lucas, an old farm converted into a fine guesthouse with excellent homemade food based on Chortí Maya recipes.
Spend the next day in the Mayan city of Copán, taking time to visit the Museo de Escultura Maya (Mayan Sculpture Museum) and to stroll along the nature trail and through the lesser-visited side site of Las Sepulturas. Set aside day 3 for admiring the lush valley and relaxed little town, letting yourself slip into the tranquil rhythms of Honduran life. Take a guided horseback ride to a hidden Mayan ceremonial site in the hills; visit the Macaw Mountain Bird Park, full of parrots, toucans, and other tropical birds; or take a soak in the nearby thermal springs.
the parque central at the town of Copán Ruinas
Take an early bus to San Pedro Sula, and from there on to Lago de Yojoa, the largest lake in Honduras. Stop at the 43-meter-high Pulhapanzak Falls, where you can take a dip in the Río Lindo as well, before heading on to the lakeshore for your room (options range from a backpacker hostel to mid-range hotels).
Get up early to spend two or three hours boating on the lake, strolling around the pre-Hispanic ruins of Los Naranjos or bird-watching in the Parque Nacional Santa Bárbara. Then hop a bus back to San Pedro and on to the coast city of La Ceiba (four hours travel time, roughly), staying at one of several ecolodges built at the edge of Parque Nacional Pico Bonito and along the Río Cangrejal.
Adventure day. Either go white-water rafting down the jungle-lined Río Cangrejal, or go hiking to see one of the waterfalls tumbling off the flanks of Pico Bonito. Another option is to tour the mangrove wetlands at Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado. If you’ve still got some energy after nightfall, hit the disco scene in La Ceiba for some drinks and dancing.
Fly or take a ferry from La Ceiba out to Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands. Proceed directly to West Bay, a picture-perfect white-sand beach with coral reef literally right offshore. Beach addicts will want to stay right here, while night owls might opt for a room in one of the low-key hotels of West End. Spend the next three days getting a strong dose of the Caribbean: as much sun, seafood, snorkeling or scuba diving, and general chilling out as you can manage until it comes time to head home, via plane or ferry to La Ceiba and on to the San Pedro airport.
WHEN YOU’RE SHORT ON TIME
If a week is all you’ve got, spending your days among the impressive ruins of Copán and the charming nearby village, then heading to the powdery beaches and crystal waters of any of the Bay Islands, makes for an unforgettable trip.
ADVENTURE TRAVEL: FROM CAVES TO CLOUD FORESTS
With its rugged landscape and varied climate, Honduras is an ideal destination for travelers looking to get outdoors and into nature.
There is a fantastic assortment of forested countryside, some with marked trails and much of it without, but the scenery is spectacular, and the friendly locals are always happy to point you the right way. The area roughly between Santa Rosa de Copán, Gracias, La Esperanza, and the Salvadoran border is one of the best for backcountry hiking, with endless green mountains dotted with picturesque Lenca villages. The most popular hike in this area is up to the cloud forests at Parque Nacional Celaque, near Gracias, and the circuit from La Campa to Belén Gualcho makes for a fascinating few days.
The well-organized parks of La Tigra and Cerro Azul/Meámbar have several marked trails that offer easy day hiking, while the latter also boasts less-visited areas best reached with a guide in multiday trips. Parque Nacional Pico Bonito offers many easily accessible trails, all in close proximity to beaches and thermal baths when you’re ready to unwind. The Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Muralla in Olancho is home to nearly 60 mammal species and some 170 bird species, and several well-marked trails.
HIT THE BEACH
the tiny island paradise of Chachahuate, one of the Cayos Cochinos
With 735 kilometers of coastline, the three large Bay Islands, and a couple dozen smaller cays, sun worshipers will have no problem finding palm-lined beaches large and small on which to lay their towel or sling their hammock. Here are a few tips to help you find the best beach for you.
BEST ALL-AROUND BEACH
If you have to pick just one beach in the country, it’s hard to argue with West Bay, Roatan. A couple of kilometers of powdery sand fronted by turquoise waters, with a coral reef just a few meters offshore, West Bay is a tropical daydream.
MOST SECLUDED BEACHES
After the paved road ends in eastern Roatan, adventurous travelers can press on, taking a rutted dirt road all the way to Camp Bay. On Guanaja it takes a boat to reach spots like Dina Beach and Soldado Beach, on the island’s north shore. Those who make the effort to reach these far-flung beaches will be rewarded with white sands and crystalline waters all for themselves.
BEST SUN AND FUN
The beach town of Sambo Creek, a few kilometers east of La Ceiba, makes an excellent home base for anyone wanting to split their days between soaking up the sun on golden sands, and nearby adventure activities such as jungle hiking and white-water rafting.
Utila lures visitors with stunning reef, quirky scuba culture, and the possibility of snorkeling with whale sharks. Guanaja is the least-visited Bay Island, but offers equally extraordinary (or perhaps even better) sea life for underwater explorers.
BEST BEACH OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Those who make a daytrip to the Cayos Cochinos from Roatan, Utila or La Ceiba, are rewarded with paradise-perfect islets swaying with palm trees and surrounded by colorful fish. Those who want to extend their stay can dive with Plantation Beach Resort or Pirate Island Divers, or rent a room from a local in the Garífuna fishing village on the cay of Chachahuate.
AN ISLAND ALL FOR YOU
Those who prefer to really get away from it all should head to the Utila Cays, where they can choose from camping on Water Cay for a nominal fee and having a fish cookout, or actually renting their very own island, Sandy Cay or Little Cay.
BEST GARÍFUNA BEACH TOWN
Numerous towns and villages along the north coast of Honduras are populated by the Garífuna, a unique group of people of African and American indigenous origin. Triunfo de la Cruz, just east of Tela, is one of the friendliest, and makes a great place to stay for a couple of days. Head to Rice and Beans on a Sunday and you just might catch an impromptu Garífuna jam session, to go with your seafood soup.
Far east along the northern coast lies the sleepy town of Trujillo, on a broad bay near the edge of the Mosquitia jungle. The cabins at Banana Beach Resort or Tranquility Bay, or the budget-friendly digs at Casa Kiwi, are ideal for soaking up the glorious natural setting and mellow vibe.
the real king of the jungle
With its Class III, IV, and V rapids, the Río Cangrejal on Honduras’s north coast boasts some of the premier white-water rafting in Central America. The raging river bordered by lush jungle is easily accessible to the traveler short on time through a day trip from La Ceiba, and more enjoyable still when experienced in conjunction with a night in one of the lodges tucked along the river’s winding edge. The nearby Río Zacate is another popular rafting destination. Those with a bit more time can book a trip down the Río Patuca through Olancho and the Mosquitia-camping and rafting all in one.
RIDING THE TRAILS
Experienced riders and newbies alike can arrange to explore Honduras by horseback in several spots around the country. On Utila, Red Ridge Stables offers two-hour rides to explore the beaches and visit local caves. Riding can also be arranged on Roatan, for a tour through the jungle and the village of West End. Back on the mainland, horseback tours are available in La Ceiba with adventure tour companies Omega Tours, La Moskitia Eco-Aventuras, and Sambo Creek Canopy Tours. Near the Mayan ruins of Copán, inexpensive rides can be arranged through Basecamp, Yaragua Tours, and Hacienda San Lucas, or riders can stay at the ranch Finca El Cisne, where trails pass through coffee and cardamom plantations. Some of the best-priced rides in Honduras can be had near Gracias, passing through Lencan villages and the verdant foothills of Parque Nacional Celaque.
Cuevas de Taulabé
Dedicated cavers can get their fix at one of the more adventurous sets of caves in Honduras, such as the Cuevas de Susmay in Olancho, requiring headlamps, good shoes, and even a swim to explore the main tunnels. The Cuevas de Taulabé in central Honduras are said to hold hidden treasure within their crevices, while Olancho’s Cuevas de Talgua were once a cemetery for glittering human bones. Both have paved walkways for the novice, while experienced guides are happy to take those looking for a challenge into the less-explored depths.
GOING GREEN AND CONNECTING WITH THE CULTURE
Ecotourism, community tourism, responsible tourism—three different catchwords with overlapping principles. All are about minimizing the negative impacts that tourists can have, and maximizing the benefits their dollars (or euros or pounds) bring. By incorporating these ideas into trip-planning, travelers are often rewarded with more meaningful experiences during their journey and deeper connections with the people and land they visit.
Parque Nacional Pico Bonito is undoubtedly the country’s premier ecotourism destination. The Lodge at Pico Bonito combines luxury rooms with a lush jungle setting and a genuine commitment to its environment (and the lodge supports a local microfinance organization for women, to boot). Nearby Omega Jungle Lodge has backpacker dorms, a basic cabin built over a creek, and high-end cabins with luxury touches, all of which benefit from the hotel’s gorgeous hillside setting and environmentally friendly waste management system. Both Omega Tours and La Moskitia Eco-Aventuras have good reputations for well-run, low-key but high-adventure trips near La Ceiba, in the Mosquitia, and even exploring the little-visited region of Olancho.
VESTIGES OF THE PAST
the colonial church of La Campa
With a rich and varied tradition of indigenous cultures as well as several centuries of Spanish colonial rule, Honduras has numerous historical monuments and ruins worth visiting.
THE MAYAN WORLD
The city of Copán was far and away the artistic leader of all the Mayan cities, with ornate sculptures and statues, and the most complete hieroglyphic historical record yet found. The ruins of Copán and smaller surrounding sites, located in a lovely river valley, are worth at least two days, more for the archaeology buff. Don’t miss a trip to the sculpture museum, with a full-scale, painted replica of an ancient temple in the center, or Las Sepulturas, for a glimpse of Mayan daily life. Be one of the first to visit the newly inaugurated sites El Rastrojón and Río Amarillo.
OTHER PRE-HISPANIC SITES
Long before the Maya, Honduras acted as a meeting point of sorts between groups migrating from North and South America, and the country has a rich and still little-understood history of different indigenous civilizations. Right on the shore of Lago de Yojoa are the largely unexcavated ruins at Los Naranjos. Spend the night in a hotel on the lake, both to enjoy the ambiance and to see the ruins early in the morning, when the surrounding tropical forests are alive with birds. Petroglyphs that are a thousand or more years old can be found across the country, near Las Marías in the Mosquitia, and Yuscarán and Ojojona in southern Honduras.
COMAYAGUA AND GRACIAS
Comayagua, in central Honduras, was the country’s capital during most of the colonial era, meriting a day’s stop to see the many architectural monuments and artwork. Stay on for a day or two more if visiting during Semana Santa, when traditional carpets made of sawdust fill the streets for the Easter processions. Gracias is smaller, but the quality of its colonial churches and the overall ambiance make it a charming place to spend a couple of days, especially given the proximity to the Parque Nacional Celaque and several lovely Lencan villages. Make sure to take at least one day trip to La Campa and San Manuel Colohete, with their elegant and imposing colonial churches.
The youth group Guaruma has trained guides and created trails for the Parque Nacional Pico Bonito.
Community-owned cabins, village walking tours, nighttime crocodile-spotting, and lazy afternoons tubing down the river are all locally organized and owned in the Mosquitia, and longtime guides La Moskitia Eco-Aventuras (www.lamoskitia.hn), run by Moskitia native Javier Salaverri, are the experts on the region. Over in the mountain highlands, Colosuca (www.colosuca.com) proudly combines the living culture of its Lencan villages with regal colonial architecture and the natural beauty of Parque Nacional Celaque-all of which can be enhanced by the knowledge of local guides.
Over at the Parque Nacional Pico Bonito and Río Cangrejal, local youth group Guaruma (www.guaruma.org) will lead visitors on local hikes and connect them with community-owned cabins.
Not everyone wants to stay in a rustic cabin or a community guesthouse, but that doesn’t preclude asking questions about the social and environmental impact of your hotel, restaurant, or dive shop, or supporting locally owned businesses to ensure that they don’t get crowded out of tourism-based development.
Environmentally friendly hotels are popping up on Roatan: Cocolobo in West End was designed by a British environmental architect with details such as side windows to capture cross breezes and minimize air-conditioning, while Infinity Bay on West Bay beach was built using soil-preservation principles, and uses solar panels and zero-emission waste management. On Utila, native-owned businesses are some of the most committed to their community, such as the Lighthouse Hotel and the Parrots Dive Centre—the latter offering free scuba training to local youth to encourage them to become involved in the island’s booming dive industry.
Just outside of Copán Ruinas, the locally owned Hacienda San Lucas was built entirely without the use of electricity, maintains a low impact through the use of solar power and abundant candles, and shares local culture through meals based on indigenous Chortí Maya recipes. Back in town, Via Via Café, its hotel, and its hostel are all Belgian-owned, but the owners are deeply committed to working for the betterment of the region, which they enact through their participation in community networks and the payment of fair wages to staff. Their tour agency, Basecamp, offers a “Copán Alternative Hike”-a walking tour that presents the reality of small-town Honduran living, the good and the bad, with half the proceeds donated toward the purchase of schoolbooks for surrounding rural villages.
Even in the urban jungle of San Pedro Sula, environmentally aware travelers now have a good option at the Casa del Arbol, a family-owned boutique hotel that has been certified for sustainable tourism by Smart Voyager, a program for Latin America created with the support of the Rain Forest Alliance. The Hotel Guancascos in Gracias, Lempira, is the only other hotel in the country to share this distinction.
DIVING THE REEF
Honduras boasts some of the best coral reef in the Americas, as well as rock-bottom prices for diving certification. There are myriad options for shops and sites, making it easy to find the right match for any taste.
CHOOSING A SHOP
· Experience: How long has the shop been around? What experience does the staff have? (Thousands of dives under their belts is a great sign, and many of those in Honduran waters.)
· Equipment: How new is it? A top shop will change equipment every couple of years. If the equipment is older, check it carefully—a leaky mask or faulty gauge will ruin a dive.
· Safety: Check our list of questions (page 207) about oxygen, radios, and the like to ensure that the shop meets minimal safety standards.
· Crowds: How many divers per dive master, and how many divers per boatload? (If there are 5 divers per dive master, but 25 divers on the boat, the dive site will still be crowded.)
· Sites: Far-flung sites take longer to reach, but for that reason, they tend to be the best preserved. Will the shop accommodate site requests?
· Vibe: Who is hanging out in the shop, and what is the staff like? Young partiers, old hippies, smooth professionals? Look for folks whose company you think you’ll enjoy.
CHOOSING A DIVE
· Testing the Waters: If you’ve never even snorkeled, a Discover Scuba one-day course is a great way to get your feet wet. The financial commitment is smaller too (around US$100). Kids can join in the fun, as the minimum age is 10 (just 8 for a one-day Bubblemaker course).
· Getting Certified: If you are ready for more, Open Water Certification is the next step. The 3-4 day courses run US$275-350 depending on the island and shop. (Note, all over Utila and at several shops in West End, Roatan, budget accommodation or hotel discounts are included in the course price.)
· Heading Back Underwater: Just about any shop on Roatan will take you out for a single dive, while most shops on Utila sell two-dive packages (their boats do two dives in a single outing). Ten-dive packages are the best value for getting back to the reef, and can often be split with a friend. A wealth of specialty courses and dives are available on either island, including night, wreck and rescue, just to name a few.
· Going Pro: Head to Utila or Roatan if you are interested in becoming a dive master or instructor. Six weeks and US$700-800 are all that are needed to start you on a new, beach-based career.
CHOOSING AN ISLAND
· Roatan: The largest and most popular of the Bay Islands, Roatan has countless dive shops and perhaps 50 moored dive sites around the island. As the island with the most non-diving activities (canopy tours, botanical gardens, dolphin encounters), it’s a perfect fit for those who just want to get in a couple of dives, or who have non-divers along in the group.
· Utila: With the cheapest certification classes around, Utila is a mecca for the budget diver. While the diving is uniformly inexpensive, there are plenty of midrange hotels and even a couple of high-end diving resorts, happily accommodating divers looking for a little more comfort.
· Guanaja: Tourism on Guanaja is limited, making for perhaps the best-preserved sites. There are 38 moored sites sprinkled around the island, including a 1,800-meter wall, with labyrinths of caves and tunnels, pinnacles and wrecks. Only a handful of resorts offer diving, ensuring that sites never get crowded. While many sites are best for intermediate to experienced divers, novices can explore caves and grottoes teeming with colorful marine life.
· Cayos Cochinos: It doesn’t matter which dive shop you choose. With only two small shops based in the Cayos Cochinos, you are sure to avoid crowds at dive sites.
Skip the amusement parks this summer: Honduras has a wealth of activities to keep children from tots to teens active and engaged, and many easy and comfortable enough for grandparents to tag right along.
Carved skulls, a ball court, even a special stone for making human sacrifices! The Mayan ruins of Copán provide not only a riveting history lesson, but also a great pile of rocks for climbing on, and large fields for running through. Elementary-aged kids can learn about Mayan numbering and pose as a carved stela at the interactive Museo Casa K’inich, a children’s museum, while older kids can sign up for a horseback ride, canopy tour or tubing on the Río Copán. A relaxing afternoon at the thermal baths will help everyone to unwind. The colorful birds and easy paths at nearby Macaw Mountain Bird Park appeal to all ages. Teens will likely enjoy staying in a hotel right in town, while those looking for space where small ones can stretch their legs might want to check out the swimming pool at the Clarion Posada Real de Copán or the cottages at Hacienda El Jaral, 20 minutes away, with its central grassy field and neighboring water park.
Flamboyant tropical flowers add splashes of color to Roatan’s lush greenery.
Spider monkeys are residents of many of Honduras’s national parks.
Who can resist golden sands, lapping waves, and friendly fish? West Bay combines powdery beach with coral reef so accessible that even the most rudimentary swimmer can easily get a good look, while the glass-bottom boat lets nonswimmers get close to the colorful fish. Plenty of accommodations along the beach have two- to three-bedroom units and kitchens where parents can whip up a plate of pasta for picky or tired eaters.
Older teens are likely to be attracted by the lively vibe of West End, with its shops and beachfront restaurants. Many of the rooms here have prices that are friendlier to families on a budget, and a few house rentals are available as well. Anthony’s Key Resort is a great place to spend the day, or the whole vacation, with its dolphin encounters that even toddlers can enjoy, supplied-air snorkeling for children as young as five, and scuba training for ages eight and up. Treetop canopy rides provide a thrill for any age, and some have children’s harnesses, so little ones as young as four can take the ride (securely hooked to one of the professional guides, of course!).
Kids love getting up close and personal with the birds.
THE NORTH COAST
There are myriad nature and adventure activities in the region surrounding La Ceiba. The Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado is home to 35 mammal species (including jaguars, monkeys, and manatees), as well as countless types of birds and reptiles, accessed by a short ride on a charming antique railcar from the days of the bananeros, and then by boat. Since early morning and late afternoon are the best times to spot the wildlife, families may want to spend the night in the simple cabins on-site. A variety of trails through the lush foliage of Parque Nacional Pico Bonito means that virtually any level of hiking interest and ability can be accommodated. The Lodge at Pico Bonito offers luxury in the jungle, or families can consider retiring to the beaches and laid-back hotels of Sambo Creek at the end of the day, from where they can take a short boat ride to the knockout shores of the Cayos Cochinos the following day.
Older kids may be tempted by the rafting trips on the Río Cangrejal; Omega Jungle Lodge runs reliable tours and has a couple of spacious cabins suitable for families, as well as a swimming pool on-site. Punta Sal, near Tela, boasts fine sand and transparent water, which tours combine with a short and sweet jungle walk dotted with hermit crabs and monkeys, all in an easy day trip from town.